Midway through a press screening of the Tribeca Film Festival documentary offering Autism in Love, while listening to Lindsey—one of the movie’s four featured subjects—describe her self-consciousness and frequent befuddlement over human behavior, I wondered, “Wait, do I have autism, too?”
I’m pretty sure I don’t (at least, I’ve never been diagnosed), but I nonetheless found Lindsey to be particularly relatable and articulate. “I think the most important agenda was to humanize autism,” the movie’s director Matt Fuller told me later. “Hopefully when you’re watching the movie, after 15 minutes in you forget that the people that you’re watching have autism and are just relating to them as people who want the same thing as you do.”
I never quite forgot that Lindsey, her boyfriend David, Lenny (who’s in his 20s), and David (who’s decidedly older) have autism, given that they talk about it so much. Autism in Love simultaneously presents a world rarely seen on film, and yet despite its subjects’ disability, their struggles are universal.
Below is a condensed and edited transcript of my conversation with Fuller and Autism in Love’s producer Carolina Groppa.
Gawker: Why were you interested in this subject?
Fuller: I really didn’t know anything about autism prior to getting involved in the project, but as a storyteller I’m always looking for stories about characters who want something it seems as though they can’t have. That’s kind of fundamental for compelling drama. And with my ignorance I became really hungry to understand more deeply what it’s like to be an adult with autism. That’s the desire, but the back story of the project coming together is Carolina was working for Dr. Ira Heilveil, our executive producer. He’s been in the autism space for almost 30 years. Carolina was working as his personal assistant and he wanted to do a research project about this topic that he thought would turn into a book. Carolina and I were the ones who went about conducting that research for him and realized that there’s a much bigger story here than what we could capture in a book.
The people you chose were such perfect documentary subjects because they’re so self-conscious and OK with talking about that. So you understand their interior lives more easily than you might listening to someone who doesn’t have a disability.
Groppa: The stars really aligned for us with who we found and the moments of time that we had access to their lives. We couldn’t have planned that if we tried.
Fuller: You read those things on them right away. Like when you meet Lindsey, you kind of connect to her immediately. She’s very magnetic in her personality, which is sort of antithetical to the construct of autism. Lenny, too. His mom says it best: There’s no lie in Lenny. There’s no muffler. Nothing is off bounds. He lives it out loud, he talks about it.
Out of the different kinds of people who could be exploited via media, there’s children and then there’s people with disabilities at the top of the list. What considerations about that did you have, if any?
Fuller: We were certainly aware of being perceived as exploitive, particularly not having a background in autism. But that worked in our favor. Having no agenda, people saw the authenticity in our desire to give them a platform to give them to say what they have to say and share their stories. We were certainly aware that we weren’t qualified to or interested in editorializing or pushing any sort of agenda. We wanted people to know that we wanted to listen. We wanted to hear what they had to say. There was a sense of responsibility about accurately representing autism, and the only way to do that was to let people with autism do it.
Why is the movie called Autism in Love, not Autistic in Love?
Groppa: I think it just sounds better. Early on in the process, we referred to the film as Autism in Love. There was never a clear reason why, it just flowed and felt right.
Fuller: From a practical, movie-making standpoint, you know what this movie’s about right away. If it were called Autistic in Love, there’s something about that that rings less universal to me.
What do you think about people laughing during the movie? They did a few times at the screening I attended, especially at Lenny.
Groppa: Well, he’s funny.
Fuller: I think there’s a couple of kinds of laughter. There’s “I’m uncomfortable and I need to discharge this from my body” laughter. I get that. There are a couple of lines that people consistently laugh at and I think it’s a charmed laugh. It’s not a point and laugh. At least that’s how I read it. I think that’s OK. You need that in this movie. Lenny is complex in that way because he does make you laugh and make you cry.
I think it’s far worse to watch people in humorless pity, thinking that they’re somehow below you or incapable of being funny. Status anxiety is something a lot of your subjects have. Lindsey in particular fascinated me, because I felt like she was wrong about how she comes off a lot of the time. I think she does a lot of over-correction.
Fuller: There’s a lot of self-governing that happens there. The self-image thing that’s a core issue for her is so inaccurate. She’s such a beautiful, charming, magnetic person that it’s sad in many senses to know how cruel she is to herself.
Watching her and Dave consistently have these very deep and specific conversations about their relationship made me wonder if their relationship were somehow benefitting from their disability. It seems to force them to put more effort into communication than the average person does.
Fuller: There’s such a methodology to the way they communicate and relate to each other that they’ve got resources to go back to when they flounder in their situation. They’re binary about a lot of things and they lay it all out there. That’s healthy and many ways.
Deep into the film, Lenny has a sort of breakdown where he says that he wishes he weren’t autistic and then, after going on for a bit, tells you, Matt, not to cry. Tell me about your choice to include that in the movie—all of a sudden you become a character.
Fuller: To me that speaks to his awareness and it drives home the point of, “I feel these things all the time and I want you to know it, because nobody else talks about it.” I feel like I served more as the audience or the everyman there. It really drives home the intimacy of the direct address stuff that’s happening in that scene. That’s just such a beautiful and tragic monologue he delivers. I didn’t want to break it up.